SCREENPLAY BY: John Paxton

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One of the bravest screenwriters of the 1940s, John Paxton’s run as RKO’s top story-crafter between 1944 and 1947 culminated in one of the era’s most acclaimed ‘message pictures’ and preceded one of Hollywood’s most controversial witch-hunts.

Born in Kansas City in 1911, John Paxton attended the University of Missouri where he studied journalism before moving to New York where he got a job organizing a playwriting contest for the Theatre Guild. He was a reviewer for Stage magazine where he befrieded future RKO producer Adrian Scott and in 1943 he moved to Hollywood and was hired by Scott as a screenwriter. His first film was My Pal Wolf (dir. Alfred L Werker) in 1944 and, that same year, he received critical acclaim for his screenplay of Murder, my Sweet (dir. Edward Dmytryk), starring Dick Powell, which he adapted from the Raymond Chandler novel. He received the Edgar Award for Screenplay and the Scott-Dmytryk-Paxton-Powell team was born. Their second collaboration came in 1945 with Cornered, and two years later, there was So Well Remembered, this one Dick Powell-less. In 1947 came what is arguably John Paxton’s greatest and most praised achievement, his screenplay for Crossfire (dir. Edward Dmytryk), which he adapted from Richard Brooks’ novel The Brick Foxhole. Having changed some of the themes to fit the then-current Hollywood blacklist wave, Crossfire became a message picture about anti-Semitism, which we covered here. Ironically, Scott and Dmytryk were actually blacklisted and surprisingly, Paxton was not and ended up receiving an Oscar nomination for it. He didn’t win, but did received his second Edgar Award. He left RKO the following year, and throughout the 1950s, he worked for a number of studios and wrote such screenplays as Fourteen Hours (1951, dir. Henry Hathaway), The Wild One (1953, dir. Laszlo Benedek), The Cobweb (1955, dir. Vincente Minnelli), as well as On The Beach (1959, dir. Stanley Kramer). In 1971, he won the Golden Globe for Kotch (dir. Walter Matthau) and in 1972 he adapted the Adrian Scott play The Great Man’s Whiskers for television. John Paxton died in 1985 at the age of 73.

Film noir’s seven hottest couples!

‘From the moment they met, it was murder!’, goes the tagline of Double Indemnity (1944). And to be fair, that could be the tagline for any of them! Lust, angst, love, hate, lies, double-crossings and murder… When two people come together in film noir, you can expect any and all of those! Here are seven of my personal favorite couples in noir world, in no particular order:

outofthepast_jeffandkathieKathie Moffat (Jane Greer) and Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) in Out of the Past (1947) – The baddest bad girl and the coolest cat can only be an explosive combination! Poor Jeff. All he wanted was to start over, but as we know, noir won’t let anyone escape their past. In this case, Kathie is the key to Jeff’s past as well as his ultimate destruction, and he knows this. As her double-crossing ways get more devious by the minute, Jeff tries his hardest to get out and, as a result, lust, fascination and hate collide whenever these two are in the same room together.

the-big-sleep-bogieVivian Sternwood (Lauren Bacall) and Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) in The Big Sleep (1946) – The most convoluted plot ever actually makes for one of the most exciting noirs. And right at the center of it all is the relationship between Vivian and Marlowe. Curiously, in a world full of deceit, chases and double crosses, these two seem to be more at easy with each other than when they’re apart, and, being the only real-life couple on the list, that is perhaps not surprising.

hqdefaultStella (Linda Darnell) and Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) in Fallen Angel (1945)– Stella’s no-nonsense, straightforward attitude is not what con man Eric expected when he got off the bus in Walton, but he definitely likes it. Their cat-and-mouse game is fun to watch, mostly because of how she can handle him despite his controlling ways, and their interactions clearly define the good side of town vs bad side of town aspect of the film. This, ironically, makes Stella one of the most sympathetic characters in noir.

double-indemnity-life-1944-2Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity (1944)– It all started with an anklet. And ended far worse than either of them imagined. A murder plan concocted by a housewife and an insurance salesman, both driven by lust and greed, their combined rottenness is matched only by sleaziness of their relationship. It’s hot, it’s mad and it’s deceitful. What could go wrong?

lonelyplace3Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) and Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) in In a Lonely Place (1950)– When Dix becomes the main suspect in a murder, Laurel, his neighbor, testifies, and the two unexpectedly fall in love. The question of the whether or not Dix is guilty is all the more poignant when their relationship is put to the test over and over, as we navigate the film through Laurel’s eyes. Their love for each other is so consuming, so intimate, so desperate, it makes In a Lonely Place seem more like a love story disguised as a murder mystery noir than anything else.

pickuptiltedCandy (Jean Peters) and Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) in Pickup on South Street (1953)– A pickpocket, a Communist agent’s girlfriend and the top-secret microfilm between them… a combination that results in one of the most electrifying and intense love-hate relationships in noir world, and one of the few that doesn’t end tragically. As their feelings for each other become clearer, their chemistry is so good, their kisses so intimate, you almost feel like you’re intruding… Hot, hot, hot.

sem nome.pngGilda (Rita Hayworth) and Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) in Gilda (1946)– The hottest couple of them all, in my opinion. The circumstances surrounding their reunion – Johnny is hired by Ballin Mundson (George Macready) to work at his casino, not knowing his ex-lover Gilda is Ballin’s wife… – are enough to let the angst flow! Their love-hate relationship is hot, exciting, tragic and romantic, as they try to deny their feelings for each other, to no avail. Their chemistry is some of the best there has ever been, and, as far as film noir goes, that is always a bonus!

#Noirvember

 

The sad reality of Cat People (1942)

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Last year’s Horror Month DOUBLE BILL focused on the similarities between The Invisible Man (1933, dir. James Whale) and The Wolfman (1941, dir. George Waggner). If one wanted to stretch that, Cat People (1942, dir. Jacques Tourneur) could have also been included. Larry Talbot, in particular, shares common traits with Irena Dubrovna that go beyond the obvious animal motifs and, in my opinion, there is no reason why Cat People shouldn’t stand proudly alongside The Wolfman as one of horror’s most interesting psychological pieces.

In Cat People, Serbian sketch artist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) believes she is a ‘cat person’, who will turn into a black panther if she gives into her sexual desires. When she meets American engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), the two quickly develop feelings for each other and, after the initial courtship, she tells him about ‘the curse’. Despite this, the two of them decide to get married, and, sure enough, her biggest fears come back to haunt her…

A psychological thriller that makes the most of its stunning cinematography (Nicholas Musuraca, who else?) and trick visuals, Cat People is, above all, a tale of alienation, sexual repression, frustration and loneliness. Irena Dubrovna is surely one of horror’s best realized heroines, not least because she represents everything human beings fear. Her tortured, terrified nature, ‘foreignness’ and immense sexual desire for her husband, which she knows can never come to fruition, all conspire to make her the misunderstood oddity that she is; she harbours so many repressed emotions at once, it’s easy to see why this is such a poignant psychological thriller. When one considers, in particular, that the horror aspect of it comes from the fact that we don’t actually see anything at all, and that all of it is achieved through an impeccable use of lighting and powerful suggestion, this seems to fit into the whole ‘it’s all in your head’ motif. Irena seems to be in a constant struggle to overcome her own thoughts, to let go of her perceived notions about herself, and to be understood. She consults with Dr Louis Judd (Tom Conway), but sadly, nothing works. Her husband can’t seem to be able to figure her out and ends up giving up on her and going back to the ‘safe option’ that is Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), his co-worker. It is, of course, logical that the film’s two most iconic moments feature Irena stalking and mentally torturing Alice. The first one sees Irena following her rival through a park, in a chilling, prolonged moment, beautifully framed by Musuraca’s visuals, after which Irena wipes her mouth with a handkerchief, only to succumb to her guilt later. The second one takes place in a swimming pool. A cat eerily follows Alice through the dimly-lit pool area and, when she jumps in, she starts hearing growling noises. Shadows start to take form and Alice screams, horrified. Suddenly, the lights come back on and we see Irena standing over Alice on the edge of the pool, menacingly, almost threateningly. These two moments signify the shift, the thing Irena is afraid of, but can no longer fight. After this, Irena finally falls victim to herself…

Could all of this be but a strong finger-wagging at society and its rules? Most definitely. A nod at the consequences of isolation, repression and self-loathing through a surprisingly sympathetic main character? Certainly. Irena Dubrovna’s victimhood is a testament to horror’s brilliant takes on society, people and their shortcomings, and Cat People is undoubtedly among the very best of the bunch.

SCREENPLAY BY: Curt Siodmak

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When I covered The Spiral Staircase (1946, dir. Robert Siodmak) a few days ago, it dawned on me just how versatile Robert Siodmak was. In fact, he was so prolific, he may have overshadowed the success of his younger brother Curt Siodmak, the subject of this year’s Classic Horror Month’s SCREENPLAY BY.

Born in Germany in 1902, Curt Siodmak earned a PhD in Mathematics, before becoming a reporter and writer. In 1927, he was hired as an extra on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and thus was able to get a story on Lang and his film. In 1929, he invested his royalties from his books in the silent fim People on Sunday (1930), a docu-style chronicle about the lives of four Berliners on a Sunday. The film was – get ready – co-directed by his brother Robert, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann, and written by himself and Billy Wilder – I’d have fainted at the mere sight of all that talent in one room!

In 1932, Siodmak wrote the novel F. P. 1 Doesn’t Answer, later adapted into a film, and in 1937 he moved to Hollywood. His most profilic period was arguably the 1940s, during which he wrote the classic science fiction novel Donovan’s Brain, as well as the screenpays for The Invisible Man Returns (1940, dir. Joe May), The Wolf Man (1941, dir. George Waggner), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, dir. Roy William Neill), I Walked with a Zombie (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur) and Son of Dracula (1943, dir. Robert Siodmak), among others.

He continued to write throughout the following decades, and in 1998 he won the Berlinale Camera at the Berlin International Film Festival, before passing away in 2000 at the age of 98.

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

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After last year’s takes on Nosferatu, Freaks, The Most Dangerous Game, The Invisible Man and The Wolfman, I thought this year’s Classic Horror Month should focus on the psychological horror flicks and what better film to start with than The Spiral Staircase (1946, dir. Robert Siodmak)?

Written by Mel Dinelli and based on the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White, The Spiral Staircase is set in 1906 in a small Vermont town, where Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a mute woman working as a carer for the bedridden Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore in an Oscar-nominated performance), becomes terrorized, as does the whole town, when a killer on the loose is thought to be targeting disabled women. Rounding up the cast, we have George Brent as Professor Albert Warren (it was either that or a lawyer, or doctor, or something along those lines, as was customary for George Brent), Gordon Oliver as Steven Warren, the black sheep of the family, Rhonda Fleming as Blanche, his love interest, Kent Smith as Dr Parry, Elsa Lanchester as Mrs Oates, the housekeeper, and Sara Allgood as Nurse Barker.

As the opening sequence shows us this cute small town, we are immediately made aware of the ‘evil lurking in the suburbs’ trope, which, in my opinion, is one of the best realized tropes in cinema and one that never gets old. Sure enough, no less than fifteen minutes later, the mood changes and we feel like we’ve been thrust into a Wilkie Collins novel. Robert ‘King of Atmosphere’ Siodmak went all out with this one and gave us one of the spookiest and eeriest films of the decade, with some of the most terrifying visuals in cinema, courtesy of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. This, along with The Killers (1946) clearly shows that Siodmak owned 1946. But more than just a stunning piece of gothic horror and a clear influence on the later slasher and serial killer genres, The Spiral Staircase also functions as a turn-of-the-century family drama, with the right dosage of sibling rivarly between Albert and Steve, as well as Mrs Warren’s dismissal of them both. Perhaps more significantly, however, is the fact that The Spiral Staircase it is also a survival tale. Helen, a role I refuse to believe Olivia DeHavilland did not audition for, is our heroine and we root for her entirely. As she fights to find her place as well as her happiness, her mutism stands in the way and she seems to be constantly reminded of it – she even imagines a wedding in which she is unable to say the words. Throughout the film, we are clearly on her side. We want her to get out of the house, we want her to be able to warn everyone about the evil that threatens to make itself known, and we want her to get her voice back more than anything. As the world proves itself to be cruel and unforgiving through the use of a serial killer who targets women for their disabilities, The Spiral Staircase is a story about the resilience of the human spirit, perserverance, and the obstacles that need to be overcome and, by the end of the film, Helen is rewarded and so are we.

COMEDY GOLD #19: Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)

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Earlier this year, I had an idea for a Top 10 article and, as a result, I’ve been watching and re-watching films in order to prepare myself for it – it’s going to be quite an undertaking and I’m super excited about it! Anyway, one of those films was Ninotchka (1939, dir. Ernst Lubitsch), which I hadn’t seen in about eight years.

With Lubitsch at the helm, and Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch penning it, Ninotchka could only have been the success that it was anyway, but it is undenieable that Greta Garbo elevated it to a whole new level. Widely known for her aloof and standoffish persona and performances (a reputation that may be deserved if slightly unfair), her performance in Ninotchka proves that she was just as good at comedy as she was in dramatic roles. As the Russian envoy sent from Moscow to Paris to carry out the job of the inefficient agents sent there before her, Ninotchka is a no-nonsense character, professional, firm and methodic, and with little to no time for shenanigans. That is, until she meets Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas)… After that, her vulnerability comes through and we believe her just the same. With her stern expression and deadpan delivery, Garbo shows off her surprisingly natural comedic skills, and the film’s tagline ‘Garbo Laughs!’ is a highly anticipated moment that doesn’t disappoint. It’s an all-around performance, multi-layered yet carefully understated, and one suspects that, had 1939 not been the year of Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind (1939, dir. Victor Fleming), Greta Garbo would have taken home the Oscar.

SCREENPLAY BY: Ernest Lehman

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One of the most prolific and respected screenwriters in Hollywood history, Ernest Lehman was described by Dictionary of Literary Biography’s Nick Roddick as a ‘champion of the well-crafted, what-happens-next screenplay’. One look at his career, and we can certainly see why.

Ernest Lehman was born in New York City in 1915. After graduating from the City College of New York, he started working as a freelance writer and copywriter for a Broadway publicist. He also wrote short stories and novellas for a number of magazines, which garnered him considerable attention. In the 1950s, Paramount hired him as a screenwriter and in 1954, he wrote his first screenplay, Executive Suite (dir. Robert Wise), an adaptation of the Cameron Hawley book. That same year, he co-wrote Sabrina (dir. Billy Wilder), with Wilder and Samuel A. Taylor, which was nominated for Best Screenplay. In 1956, he had hits with Somebody Up There Likes Me (dir. Robert Wise) and The King and I (dir. Walter Lang), and in 1957 he co-wrote what is perhaps his greatest screenplay, Sweet Smell of Success (dir. Alexander Mackendrick), with Clifford Odets, having based much of it on his own personal experiences as a writer in New York. Inexplicably, he did not receive a nomination for it. Two years later, he wrote his very first original screenplay, North By Northwest (dir. Alfred Hitchcock), which got him his second Oscar nomination and an Edgar Award – the first of two; the other one was for Family Plot (1976, dir. Alfred Hitchcock). In 1961, he received yet another nomination for West Side Story (dir. Robert Wise), and in 1965, he collaborated with Wise again in The Sound of Music. His last Oscar nod came in 1966, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (dir. Mike Nichols), which he adapted from the Edward Albee play. Though he never won a competitive Oscar, he became the first screenwriter to receive an Honorary one in 2001, before passing away in 2005 at the age of 89.

Vive la France! Blogathon – Les Diaboliques (1955)

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Not only is Les Diaboliques (1955, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot) one of the greatest psychological thrillers of all time, it is also one of the most unsettling. Georges van Parys’ terrifying score in the opening credits is enough to send shivers down your spine – and remind you of Cape Fear (1962, dir. J. Lee Thompson) in the process – but the steady pace towards the shocking ending is on a whole other level.

School teachers Christina Delassalle (Vera Coulzot) and Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) conspire to kill Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse), a tyrannical school headmaster and their husband and lover, respectively. They carry out their carefully thought-out plan by sedating him and drowning him in a bathtub one night. They then throw his body in the school’s swimming pool, only to find it gone the next day…

The film’s bleak look and overall feel is perfectly suited for its plot and subject matter and what’s great about it is that it hits you straight away. From the beginning, we get this immense sense of dread and doom, so raw and unnapologetically out in the open, which is something I always found particularly brilliant about French cinema of the era. Here, Nicole and Christina’s first interaction sets the tone for the rest of the movie, as it reveals the violent nature of this three-way relationship, while also letting us know who’s in charge. Their scenes together set the plot in motion and the subsequent events are increasingly unnerving, particularly that gruesome murder in the middle of the night, after which, things get even spookier, if that’s even possible. The swimming pool sequence, especially, is a prime example of the ‘anticipation of the bang’ phenomenon that goes with psychological thrillers and it is perhaps the most significant moment in the film, as it changes the course of the narrative and shifts the dynamics between the main characters. This is where the cracks start to show…

Oh and if you’re sensing some Hitchcock vibes, there’s a reason for that. Apparently, Henri-Georges Clouzot beat him for the rights of the book (She Who Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac) by just a few hours and Hitch subsequently called it one of his favorite movies. Luckily, Boileau-Narcejac also wrote D’Entre Les Morts, which, of course, became Vertigo (1958), so…

For more posts on the Vive Le France! Blogathon, click here.

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COMEDY GOLD #18: The picnic from To Catch a Thief (1955)

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To Catch a Thief (1955, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) boasts not only two of the most beautiful people who have ever lived as its leads, but also some of the most breath-taking landscape ever put on film. Let’s face it, To Catch a Thief is pure eye candy! But more importantly than that, it remains one of Hitchcock’s most well-rounded and quintessential films, ticking nearly all the boxes when it comes to genres. It’s a thriller, it’s a romance, it’s a comedy, you name it. And while one could focus on Jessie Royce Landis’ entire performance for this month’s COMEDY GOLD, the picnic scene ultimately takes the cake. At this point, the police are after retired cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant) following a string of robberies and Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) is at the wheel, driving him away from them. After a while, they stop at a pre-chosen spot and have a little picnic. Francie’s onto John and she lets him know that not only does she know what’s going on but that she wants in on it. The whole scene is filled with charming little quips here and there, culminating in an equally charming kiss, but the stand-out moment has to be the infamous ‘Do you want a leg or a breast?’ scene, a line which was improvised by Kelly, prompting an improvised response from Grant, all without missing a beat. Well, nearly. He almost started laughing, but managed to keep it together. I’m not sure many people in his position would have.

SCREENPLAY BY: June Mathis

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June Mathis’ legendary eye for detail and sense of plot and theme are second only to her perseverance and determination; her accomplishments in the early to mid-1920s led to her being ranked by the Academy as the third most powerful woman in Hollywood, behind only Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge.

Born in Colorado in 1887, June Mathis initially pursued a career in vaudeville at the age of 12, finding success in San Francisco. When she realized she wanted to write instead, she entered a screenwriting contest. She ended up receiving several offers and her first produced script came in 1915 with The House of Tears (dir. Edwin Carewe). She signed with Metro, wrote for some of the biggest stars of her day, and in the early 1920s became the first and only female executive in Hollywood. In 1921, came The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (dir. Rex Ingram), a project that belonged to Mathis in nearly every way. She wrote the script, chose the director, and perhaps more significantly, the star, one Rudolph Valentino. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse became the biggest-grossing film of 1921, launching its three principals players – Mathis, Ingram and, of course, Rudy – into superstardom. Her lifelong friendship with Valentino was a genuine and prosperous one, with Mathis writing several films for him including The Young Rajan (1922, dir. Phil Rosen), Blood and Sand (1922, dir. Fred Niblo) and The Hooded Falcon (1924, dir. Joseph Henabery). The jaw-droppingly disasterous production of Ben Hur (1925, dir. Fred Niblo) came just a year after the controversial editing of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), but thankfully First National Pictures was just around the corner, ready to take her in. While there, she wrote several comedy scripts for Coleen Moore, and after two years, she joined United Artists. After Rudolph Valentino’s death in 1926, she loaned her spot in the crypt in the then-Hollywood Memorial Cemetery for him to be buried there. In 1927, June Mathis died from a heart ailment at the age of 40. To this day, Mathis and Valentino rest next to each other in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.